Dec. 28, 2015
What Broke Carlos Zambrano?
Over three years after throwing his final pitch in the majors, we look back at the downfall of former Cubs All-Star Carlos Zambrano
Written by Jake Elman
Nearly 108 years ago, the Chicago Cubs rode a strong pitching rotation that featured Orval Overall and future Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown to win the 1908 World Series in five games against Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers. It was a different time, one in which games might not even last an hour and a half and home runs were rarer than someone who supported full equality; and, though no one knew at the time, 1908 was the last time that a World Series trophy would be returning to Chicago's North Side.
Now, with the 2016 season quickly approaching, the Cubs hope that their pitching -- a key reason why Joe Maddon's squad was able to win 97 games and reach the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2003 -- will be able to repeat their success from this past season. Expectations should be high on the pitching front, though: veteran lefty Jon Lester remains a crafty threat on the mound, Jake Arrieta is coming off a 21-3, 1.77 season that saw him win the Cy Young Award, Jason Hammel is always a solid option in the back end, and former Cardinals veteran John Lackey is trading white and red for white and blue.
Had you told me ten years ago that, coming into the 2016 season, the Cubs would have one of the better rotations on paper, I'd have shrugged and said I saw it coming. At the time, they still had Mark Prior (before injuries tore him apart), Kerry Wood (before injuries tore him apart and he became a reliever), and a heavyset, Spanish starting pitcher that could duel with the best of them. Both the MLB 2K and MLB: The Show series constantly had him rated among the top starters in the game, the guy had a face that only a mother could love, and he kicked ass -- both figuratively and literally.
What? Bartolo Colon? No, we're not talking about him.
No, sir, we are instead talking Carlos Alberto "El Toro" Zambrano, one of the National League's most intimidating pitchers from 2003-2010 and a reliable starter for the North Siders; in that time span, which saw him attend three All-Star Games, Zambrano went 111-64 with a 3.43 ERA, 36.4 WAR, and even a .247/21/64 statline as a hitter. While Prior and Wood battled injuries and saw their careers as starters derailed, Zambrano battled to become the ace of a Cubs organization that made the postseason in both 2007 and 2008.
Along with two-time American League All-Star Freddy García, current Mariners ace Félix Hernández, and two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, Zambrano began to usher in a new generation of Venezuelan starting pitchers. Unfortunately for Zambrano, immaturity and an inability to get guys out led to his removal from the Cubs rotation in 2010, a trade to the Miami Marlins in 2012, and a retirement in September 2013 after failing to make it back to the big-league level with Charlie Manuel and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Now, with the Cubs finally good again and preparing for another attempt at the World Series, it's easy to look at a rotation filled mostly through free agency and trades via recent seasons and forget about the times in which a Venezuelan right hander, signed and trained by the organization, persevered in losing seasons by the Northsiders to become one of his generation's better pitchers. Even Clark the Bear doesn't bring the emotion and intensity to the Cubs that Zambrano, for all his faults and issues, once did.
So, of all the things to go wrong with Carlos Zambano's career, what was the main thing that caused it to stop short and burn? Well, , we're here to figure out what made Carlos Zambrano from ace to forgotten man in just a couple of seasons.
1. His attitude
You knew we were starting here, right? Baseball has had plenty of me-first characters and a ton of general pricks over the years, but Zambrano really stands out in recent history; and the strange part is that this wasn't a case of someone just being a prick because they made more money than their teammates, but rather it was done just out of general childishness. Here we have a pitcher that, instead of leading by example and stepping up for his brothers when necessary (someone like CC Sabathia), wanted to act like he was the star of the game, the best pitcher alive, and incapable of receiving punishment from his team or the league.
Every spring seemed to feature the same story: Zambrano would arrive to Spring Training in Arizona in good shape, look great in early workouts, and talk about his improved maturity. Cubs manager Lou Pinella, months before re-signing mid-season, said in March 2010 how pleased he was with his ace's changed behavior.
"I see a guy who is really focused and has really worked hard and he's been under good control," Piniella, known for his own temper, . "He's ready to go. We're pleased."
With Zambrano, it really always felt like the common response to his behavior was "he'll mature later", but later never came. This wasn't a one-time thing where Zambrano, , learned his mistake and tried to better himself, but rather a continuous nasty streak that made an umpire throwing his finger into the air the norm whenever he took the mound.
That, by the way, is why I love the job that Len Kasper does for the Chicago Cubs; he's always done a great job of telling things how they are, and rather than show shock or frustration with Zambrano's behavior, you just hear the exasperation and disappointment in his tone when he says, "you can't do that, Carlos. Come on, Carlos."
It's one thing to fight for your brothers and your family, but when you're constantly fighting with your family? Following Zambrano's infamous dugout fight with first baseman Derrek Lee in June 2010, Cubs manager :
"I'm embarrassed. Carlos should be embarrassed. We'll see exactly what comes out of this. There's no question he has to control his emotions better than that. He's a grown guy and there's no need for it. I know darn well it's not going to be tolerated. ... We just couldn't tolerate that. We told him to go back in [to the clubhouse]."
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry was just as (deservedly) harsh when asked about the possibility of Zambrano taking anger management courses, responding "I think 'Good Teammate 101' would be before [anger management]."
If there's such a thing as a violent teddy bear, then that was Carlos Zambrano in a nutshell. The guy meant well -- he was a devout believer of God, pointed to the sky after each inning, and even started his own charity, the , that does their best to help with education and health issues within local Hispanic communities in Illinois -- but he was a bit much at times. Current Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who managed Zambrano from 2003-2006 with the Cubs, even admitted that, "I've had as many closed-door meetings with him as anybody I've ever managed."
Baker would also add, "you can't stay pissed at him. It's impossible", but how much is too much before you give up? When discussing in late 2010 why the New York Yankees, who had just lost out on the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, should avoid trading for the then-29 year old Zambrano, :
The dude is crazy. He’s gotten in teammate’s faces for not making defensive plays behind him, gotten into fights in the dugout (twice in the same game!), beaten the crap out of inanimate objects, and plenty of other stuff that you’ll find if you google “Carlos Zambrano crazy.” ... What happens when he has the inevitable four or five start slump (it happens to every pitcher) and has 50,000 people booing the crap out of him every five days? And just think about it for a second, half of the Cubbie faithful wants this guy gone.
Yikes. It doesn't get much better, by the way. Probably the best, least-known example of Zambrano's attitude issues came in 2009, just a bit after the aforementioned incident against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Don Cooper, pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox, was asked about Zambrano's outburst on a radio show and responded, "[the White Sox] wouldn't stand for an asshole like that on their team." Strong words from Cooper, who has been the White Sox pitching coach since July 2002, but they were, admittedly, deserved after Zambrano again acted like a child.
So, when Zambrano was informed of the comments, how did he respond? Did he say that he was going to try to improve his behavior and prove Cooper wrong? Would there be a reaching out from Zambrano to Cooper?
Zambrano instead looked up Cooper's career statistics (1-6, 5.27 ERA from 1981-85 with the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, and New York Yankees) and responded in only a way Big Z could.
"One win?" Zambrano . "Did he ever pitch a no-hitter?"
What'd I say before? Yikes. Yeah, that works.
One could really make the argument that putting self-confidence might be a better fit at number 1B rather than 2 because I do think the two are connected, but the difference here is that Big Z may have had too much confidence. I think people tend to associate Zambrano always with negatives and having that bad attitude, yet the attitude issues may have been a direct product of his confidence.
Zambrano was always an extremely confident player, and , "combines immense talent with a limitless capacity for distraction. His operatic behavior on the mound, if viewed dispassionately, represents a sort of manic performance art" in a 2006 piece for ESPN: The Magazine. Before former Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain , Carlos Zambrano was screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting his chest, bringing a childlike enthusiasm to a game that's always tried to pride itself on being played the right way. In a time where bat flips and having personality led -- and continues to lead -- to words like 'thug' being thrown around, Zambrano celebrated every out like it was his last and this was game seven of the World Series.
"You're looking at his antics and thinking, what a jerkoff," former Cubs reliever Scott Eyre said in that ESPN: The Magazine piece. "Now, I love watching him pitch from this side. It's all about perspective, right?"
One of Carlos Zambrano's most redeeming qualities, really, was his confidence and that he was a competitor; the Venezuelan right hander knew it too, remarking, "At the beginning of my career, everybody took my actions the wrong way. Now, most people know what kind of person I am. They know I don't mean any harm; it is just my way of competing."
It's not as if Zambrano was baseball's version of Terrell Owens in the sense that he was a flamboyant diva that celebrated big moments as a way of saying, "I am the best in the world at what I do." The guy was a big kid and he wanted to share his love of the game that brought him to America with the world. I can't fully fault him for that, and I'm not someone who would've been offended -- or was offended -- by Zambrano hitting his chest and yelling.
Now, were Zambrano's fights with umpires and teammates a cause of him being too confident about his own abilities and not willing to take responsibility for his own problems? I certainly think so, seeing as Zambrano would often blame his fielders for not diving at balls or risking injury to save his own ass instead of taking responsibility and saying that he should have thrown a different pitch in the situation; again, that ties back into attitude, and while having self-confidence is surely important, you don't want to have too much of it because when you start failing, where does it all go?
3. Heavy workloads
Well, there's not much to say here other than Big Z threw a lot of innings during his time in the big leagues. From 2003-2009, Zambrano threw 1435.1 innings for the Cubs across 221 starts; that's an average of 32 starts a year, and for some pitchers (especially those who are bigger guys physically -- Zambrano was listed at or around 275 pounds for most of his career and stood at 6'4"), it just becomes too much.
Really, that's all there is to say about the heavy workloads because they're pretty self-explanatory. Right? RIGHT?
What do you think it was that really made Carlos Zambrano a less-than-efficient pitcher in the big leagues? Make sure to vote on the poll below, and if you want to properly join the Mix, give me a follow on Twitter at @